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Sunday, May 19

Gapers Block

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Hey there, everyone. I'm the new film critic. If you want to see whether or not you'll like my style, head on over to Ain't It Cool News, find the Search function, and type in Capone. The results of said search should offer up about 300 reviews, celebrity interviews and movie-related tidbits that I've written for the site over the last seven years. Ignore all the typos. No one at AICN really edits these pieces, but you'll get the idea. I'll try to keep the overlap between my AICN work and my reviews here to a minimum, but if you're a regular reader of both venues and see some repeat, keep it to yourself.

Be Cool
The first of what I'm sure will be many hugely disappointing sequels in this calendar year (I don't have high hopes for Miss Congeniality 2, either) is the Get Shorty follow-up Be Cool, with John Travolta doing everything in his Scientologist power to capture some of the energy of the first film and failing for numerous reasons. I don't blame Travolta for Be Cool's failings, but he exists as the gravitational force around which all elements of this floundering, confused, amateurish production float. When preparing to view a sequel, I don't usually watch the original just before, but in this case I'd seen Get Shorty in its original run, and I wanted to remind myself whether it was as sharp and entertaining as I'd remembered. It is. Keeping much of author Elmore Leonard's original dialogue, the screenplay exists on a razor's edge, the visual style (courtesy of director Barry Sonnenfeld) is loopy and totally appropriate in the tale of a New York gangster/movie fanatic deciding to enter into the treacherous world of Hollywood. Be Cool offers us a different screenwriter (Peter Steinfeld) and director (F. Gary Gray). Gray is a solid director, giving us such worthy films as The Negotiator, Friday and The Italian Job, but he seems strangely out of his element here, and it kills this movie.

In Be Cool, Travolta's Chili Palmer is now an established film producer, having brought his fictional account of his escapades as a "Shylock" to the big screen (with Danny DeVito's self-centered actor character Martin Weir as star). But Chili is growing tired of the biz and is contemplating his next industry to conquer. When a music exec buddy of his (an uncredited and very funny James Woods) is killed in front of him, Chili decides to team up with the guy's widow, Edie (Uma Thurman, looking sexier than ever but given very little of substance to do), to run a music label. To do this, Chili knows he needs a homerun album, and after seeing Linda Moon (real-life singer Christina Milian) fronting a terrible girl group, Chili knows who his star singer has to be. Problem is, Moon is already under contract to a shady label run by Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) and black-man wannabe Raji (Vince Vaughn, who might be the only actor in this film who won't lose any credibility by being in it). To compound Chili's problems, famed record producer Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer) and his crew (which includes the underwhelming Andre 3000 from Outkast) are gunning for Edie because her late husband owes them a lot of money.

The problems with Be Cool start showing themselves early. There is far too much emphasis on music in this film. Musical numbers featuring Milian take up way too much screen time, and while she has a nice voice, a film about Chili Palmer shouldn't be an excuse to throw in three or four music videos. Get Shorty almost never showed its filmmaker (played by Gene Hackman, who I missed more and more as Be Cool went on) on the set of a film. So why do we need so much empty pop music in the sequel? What's worse is that all the characters sit around talking about how great the music is, using such overused terms as "amazing" and "incredible." Not even a guest vocal shot during an Aerosmith concert gives Milian any more credibility. Please, a guest shot with Aerosmith wouldn't give ME any more credibility. And what about the much-anticipated return to the Pulp Fiction-like dance floor for Thurman and Travolta? You'll get over it in about three seconds.

I'll give The Rock points for taking his career in his hands by playing a gay bodyguard to Vaughn's Pimp Jr. It's probably the best casting decision in the entire film, but it's only moderately amusing once you get past the choice of actors. Even clever casting can't save Be Cool, which suffers from a loopy, meandering plot that doesn't take us or the characters anywhere new or interesting. It doesn't help that all of the creative swearing from Get Shorty is gone in favor of a PG-13 rating for the sequel. That might actually have been the film's kiss of death. But perhaps worse is that Chili Palmer himself isn't as interested in the business he's trying to enter into. Palmer's enthusiasm for film was a joy to experience; the music business is just a way to make money, another feather in his cap. He doesn't feel anything for it. For that reason, I don't feel anything for this film.

One thing we can always count on from director Danny Boyle: he'll never make the same movie twice. From the demented comedies Shallow Grave and Trainspotting to the over-the-top crime caper A Life Less Ordinary to the ultimately disappointing but still watchable The Beach to the twisted spark of genius Vacuuming Completely Nude In Paradise and the horror masterpiece 28 Days Later, Boyle is a filmmaker whose projects always involve and excite me even in the rare instance when they're no damn good. His latest is the decidedly PG-rated offering Millions, and although it is being pushed strongly by Fox Searchlight as a family film, I'm not sure every member of the family is quite prepared for this movie. Certainly not a "kids" movie, but safe enough for people of all ages in terms of language, violence, etc., Millions is an absolute blast to watch thanks to strong performances from its child actors and a compelling plot that mixes religious fervor, greed, crime and loss. The kids should learn about these things early in life, I suppose.

We meet the Cunningham family. Father Ronnie (the always-reliable James Nesbitt) has recently suffered the death of his wife and must now move his two children -- 9-year-old Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) and 7-year-old Damian (Alex Etel), who serves as the focal point of the film -- to a new home. Damian is something of a religious fanatic the way some kids are baseball enthusiasts. He knows the names of every saint ever to have lived and has very clear thoughts on the issues of charity and faith. He also has a wild imagination, and seems to deal with the sadness of his mother's death by conversing with various saints (complete with little gold halos) who come to offer him practical advise on life's daily dramas. Behind their house near the railroad tracks, Damian builds a massive fort out of the large cardboard boxes his family used to pack. As soon as its built, a train blows by shaking the structure to its cardboard core (which Damian loves). Suddenly the fort comes crashing down. Damian crawls out of the wreckage to find a giant duffel bag filled to bursting with money. Naturally, he thinks that his cash-strapped family is the recipient of a miracle. The truth is much more sinister, as we discover when a scary looking chap (Christopher Fulford) shows up several days later looking for the bag.

Much of Millions focuses on the decidedly different uses Anthony and Damian come up with for the money. Anthony brags to his friends about his newfound wealth, buys them and himself all sort of goodies, and tips very well. Damian wants to give large portions of the cash to the poor in the form of anonymous gifts. Neither of them wants their father to find out. The added catch to the whole scenario is that the United Kingdom is just days away from switching from pound notes to euros, so unless they find a way to exchange huge quantities of cash in just a couple of days, the money will be useless to anyone. The boys can't simply open a bank account and deposit the money because they're too young, and they don't want to tell their father about it because they're having too much fun spending it.

Millions is more often than not quite whimsical, but there are moments of sincere melancholy that work just as well. Damian's final celestial visitor is a prime example of the latter. The film is also, at times, quite frightening as Damian is confronted by the nasty stranger, who makes arrangements (and threats) to get his cash back. The best part about Millions is that you never quite know where it's going or who's going to end up with the loot. This last point is handled quite deftly. As good as Nesbitt is here (as he is in everything), the film's heart and soul are the two boys. It was actually nice to see a film featuring brothers that weren't simply mortal enemies. The older tries to set the younger right and protect him from his own na´vetÚ. Sometimes he has to crack down on the kid, but it's always in the name of love. Both first-time actors, McGibbon and Etel give splendid performances without an hint of self-awareness. These are child characters that don't act like adults; they make the same ill-thought-out mistakes and judgment calls as real kids who don't always understand the implications or consequences of their actions. Millions might be too sophisticated for younger children to appreciate, but those approaching their teenage years will probably find the film fascinating. Millions is a film you can experience and love with your heart and mind.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland.

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